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Andrew Reiner teaches at Towson University and is the author of “Better Boys, Better Men: The New Masculinity That Creates Greater Courage and Emotional Resiliency.” He wrote this column for The Baltimore Sun.
Recently, I was sitting in the cafe of a large chain grocery store when two employees walked by. One of them must have been training the other one because he said to his colleague, “You saw how crazy things were for Mother’s Day? How we sold out of flowers?” The trainee nodded. “Father’s Day won’t be anything like that,” the veteran said. “It’ll be just another Sunday.”
Americans spend, on average, $71 more for mothers than they do fathers on their respective holidays. In a hyper-consumerist culture like ours — in which consumption mirrors identity and values — this spending discrepancy reveals deeper assumptions and stereotypes. Ultimately, it speaks to the limited ways we still expect fathers to parent.
As I discovered in research for my book, “Better Boys, Better Men,” many men don’t think they are supposed to want recognition for their parenting role, nor that they should speak up even if they do secretly crave it. One federal government employee told me, “All the men I’ve ever known taught me, or modeled, that men aren’t supposed to worry about being fussed over by their families. That’s for women.” In other words, men don’t believe they have permission to have the very human need for recognition met without risking appearing unmanly, vulnerable.
The 2019 Movember Global Research Report on masculinity and mental health found that a third of respondents feel “pressure to be manly/masculine” and that nearly 60 percent feel pressure from society to appear “strong” by being emotionally stoic, along with pressure to hide “weakness,” “fix things” and to be “physically strong.” Half of all respondents said that this pressure comes not just from men but from the larger society.
Such messages don’t originate with men only: Many women want their husbands and partners to cling to traditionally masculine behaviors as being the constant pillar of stoic “strength” for their families at the expense of their own needs. The problem with appearing “strong” is that many people believe this requires internalizing deeper emotions, which ultimately compromises our health and well-being and can lead to earlier death, as research from the Harvard School of Public Health has found.
These expectations were amplified further in a survey I conducted among 47 college students, which gauged the ideal qualities they believed fathers should possess. The students are part of a generation pushing to make gender identity more fluid, yet these were the most common responses: Fathers should be “protectors,” “strong,” “selfless,” “in control” of difficult situations, and, of course, they should tell “stupid dad jokes.”
We also are still working from a narrow script when it comes to expectations about work and home lives for men. Half of all respondents to one Pew Research Study said they valued the “contributions men make at work,” while “5 percent say society values the contributions men make at home.” Yet 56 percent of Americans observed that society values the contributions women “make at work and at home equally.”
Sure, many fathers are content, even happy, to stay insulated in this status quo. Increasingly, though, many fathers aren’t. They are the ones staying at home with the children, while their wives or partners work. They are the ones pushing for equal-parenting laws around custody and child support. They are the ones who accept, as research shows, that men consistently experience deeper emotional states that are far more similar to those of women than they are different. They are the ones that a 2019 Pew study revealed see parenting as central to their identity and are closing the gap between the degrees to which fathers and mothers are involved in their children’s lives and are contributing to domestic duties.
So, what do those of us who are part of this new breed of fathers want for Father’s Day? We don’t need grocery stores to run out of roses, but we also don’t want a tie or mug (or power tool) as yet another reminder that our parenting identities are tethered to work. We want the freedom to experience parenthood sans unproductive gendered expectations.
If given permission, this is a conversation many men would like to have. Let’s start by making stupid dad jokes optional.